Ecosystems are richer when they are diverse: biodiversity makes for a more resilient system, with more ability to deal with shocks and to fill niches. Diversity is good for groups of humans, too, from the level of committees up to societies. It helps us make better decisions. We thrive on cross-pollination, learning from people with different perspectives who bring new ways of doing things and thinking about problems. Diversity is also just an unavoidable feature of human societies, which we need to deal with whether we like it or not. People have very different experiences of the world, and unless we listen to them when they tell us about what makes their lives difficult and what helps, we often make things worse.
Acting as if everybody conforms to some idea of the ‘default human’ fails most people. Not that many of us are white, male, well-off, cis, straight, abled and neurotypical, but those who are can rest assured that everyone from outside those boxes has at least some idea what it’s like to be them. This is why we need to talk about privilege: some viewpoints are privileged over others, so we all hear about their challenges and triumphs, while the disadvantages of less privileged groups are largely hidden. If you’ve never experienced being an American white man, a million books, films and TV shows are jostling to tell you all about what it’s like.
One aspect of human diversity is the variety of processing styles we have: what we call neurodiversity. Like other kinds of diversity, it is probably a net positive, but it comes with serious challenges for those who are seen as divergent. In many ways, society is built as if everyone’s brain worked in much the same way. If you stop to think about it, it should be pretty obvious that there is no one ‘normal’ way of thinking, but most people never give it much thought. We tend to vaguely assume that other people have similar sensory processing, ways of imagining and executive functions. In fact, all of these things vary profoundly — try asking your friends about their internal monologues and visual imaginations if you want to get a sense of this, or about their experiences of noisy environments. There are few, if any, totally neurotypical people; but some are certainly more neurotypical than others. They think more like the average person, or at least the type of person society treats as the default, and their lives tend to be easier as a result.
Atypical thinking is in fact highly valued in many contexts, because most kinds of neurodivergence bring strengths as well as weaknesses, and all bring unusual perspectives. It is generally understood that scientists and artists of all sorts are likely to be quite odd, for example, and their focus and unusual takes are often seen as a worthwhile tradeoff for some non-conformity. If they are lucky, they may find that the advantages of their divergent thinking outweigh the disadvantages.
Still, on the whole, the more typical someone’s thinking style is, the more they’ll find the world set up to accommodate them. Those whose brains work strikingly differently from the norm — neurodivergent people, including autistics, dyslexics, ADHDers and so on — run into all sorts of invisible barriers, from inaccessible sensory environments to assumptions of incompetence to social exclusion. We regularly run up against people’s expectations about how easy or how difficult things ‘should’ be. Either way can make our lives much harder.
Everyone has experienced being misjudged or misunderstood at some point in their lives. This is horrible for the person being misjudged, and bad for everyone else because it means that their strengths are being wasted. Schools and workplaces can be awful places for people who think and experience the world differently from their peers, where such misunderstandings are all too common, and human potential is recklessly squandered. This happens all the time, even to relatively neurotypical people, because most of the population has so little understanding of how differently other people think.
Disability, roughly speaking, is the inability to do things that people are normally expected to be able to do. That makes it a mismatch between a person and their physical and social environment — including other people’s expectations. People don’t usually think of themselves as disabled unless they are prevented from doing things they want or need to do. It is misleading to suggest that all disability is caused by other people’s attitudes and the barriers put in disabled people’s way, but it is true that disability can never be disentangled from its social context. In Britain in 2019, for example, most autistic people are disabled. For the most part, people are only labelled as neurodivergent if they are seen as disabled, although they may not think of themselves that way.
Perhaps some autistic people would be disabled in almost any context, but it’s hard to be sure: social expectations have been very different in different times and places, and sometimes changing someone’s environment can make an amazing amount of difference to their ability to function. Either way, the existence of very disabled people is compatible with the idea that neurodiversity is not a bad thing. We can say that we don’t want a ‘cure’ for the processing style that makes us who we are, without saying there is nothing we want to change about ourselves. Everyone has things about them that they’d like to fix or improve, unless they’re convinced they’re already perfect — in which case I guarantee there are still things that other people would like to fix about them. If someone wants to change something about themselves, and they have a chance to, that is usually okay, even though all change comes at a cost.
It is possible to wholeheartedly accept someone for who they are, while offering them the help and support they need to thrive in life. It is not possible to fully accept someone if you have a problem with who they are at a fundamental level, and that includes any neurodivergence they might be born with. You can help a child to grow and learn, but know that there are things you will never change about them, and appreciate what makes them unique.
Self-acceptance can be hard to come by, especially if we don’t feel accepted by others. Without it, self-improvement is infinitely harder. It is by understanding our challenges and strengths that we learn how to live with them.
Further reading on the meaning of neurodiversity:
- What Neurodiversity Isn’t (by me)
- Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions (by Nick Walker)
- Neurodiversity FAQ (by Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism)
- What the Neurodiversity Movement Does — And Doesn’t — Offer (by Emily Paige Ballou)
- Disagreeing over Neurodiversity (by Damian Milton)
- Here’s What Neurodiversity Is — And What It Means For Feminism
(by Cara Liebowitz)
- The Neurodiversity Reader (edited by Damian Milton et al) includes a version of this piece along with writings by many others in the neurodiversity movement.
‘Neurodiversity is for Everyone’ is the slogan of The Autistic Women & Non-Binary Network, which I seem to have missed entirely when writing this piece!